Friday, July 28, 2017

The Queen is Dead... Long Live the Queen?

Oh dear, where to start. First off, this story is not fresh in my memory because we have been away from the Geek's Quad for a week for our annual trek to Kentucky to help our daughter with her vendor booth at BreyerFest. We had a great time and she had a very successful year, but I did not write my next blog post as I had planned on during our time away. So now, I need to think back to several weeks ago to when this saga began to start this tale of woe, frustration and confusion.

You may recall that when I was first contemplating setting up a bee hive, I decided I wanted to be a bee-haver not a beekeeper. The difference being that, in my research, I discovered that beekeepers seemed to obsess over their bees and it seemed to me that they often micro-managed what was going on in their hives. With our desire to live as self-reliantly as possible, I also wanted our bees to have the same mindset.

I have just started to open the hive for inspection. 
The roof and top boardhave been removed. 
The queen excluder is still in place on the top of the 
second brood box. Worker bees can move freely 
through the spaces in the queen excluder. 
Things were going quite well from the first day we moved the bees in. Our bees are friendly, docile and quite easy to work with compared to stories I have heard from others new to the world of beekeeping. I would periodically open the hive to see how the bees were progressing in building comb on the frames, and as the brood box became fairly full we added a second brood box. Our overall plan for the summer was to allow the bees to fill the frames in this second brood box with comb that they would use to grow more brood as well as store honey for themselves for the winter. When this box was near full, we would add the honey super at the top of the hive above the queen excluder. The queen excluder is a screen-like shield that allows worker bees to move freely up into the honey super to fill it with honey (for us) but the queen can not fit through this divider so she can not lay eggs up in the frames where you plan to harvest honey from.

In most hives the honey super is box with frames for the bees to build comb on, just like the brood box. But in our case, we  have a Flow Hive which has a set of frames that have man-made comb already in place for the bees. When the bees fill them with honey, there is a tool to unlock the frames and the honey flows from the frames without removing them from the hive. Hopefully, we will be able to share more about this later in the summer, now back to our story...

The capped cells in this photo are filled with honey.
Honey cells have slightly concave caps and a
somewhat translucent appearance.
I checked in on the second brood box a few times and saw the bees were busy building comb. I then decided to do a more complete inspection and started by pulling out the frames one at a time and my untrained eye saw that the frames were very full and many of the cells were capped. I was very happy as it looked like we were ready to put the honey super on to start collecting honey for ourselves. I then decided to take off that second brood box and inspect the original box as well.

I lifted the top brood box off. Now this is a medium box, which is shorter that the original deep brood box, but I was surprised at how heavy it was from all the honey now in the eight frames within it. Again, this made me very happy, but as I started loosening and lifting frames from the lower box I became more and more concerned. The comb on all these frames was almost empty! There was a bit of uncapped honey in some of the cells but no capped honey (full cells the bees had closed) and no cells that had any signs that the queen had laid eggs in them.

Empty comb in the
bottom brood box.
I had never seen the queen in the hive, but she is often very hard to spot with the thousands of bees moving around on all the frames so I had never been concerned about it. But now, the lack of any sign of reproduction was a huge concern. Worker bees hatch in 21 days and drones hatch in 24 days so that meant the queen had not laid in at least that long. I was also seeing queen cells in the honeycomb along the bottom edges of the frame. Later on, in all my research, I would learn that this meant the hive was trying to make a new queen and the position of the queen cells indicated it was because there had been a swarm.

But wait, I am getting things out of order.With the lack of brood, I was pretty sure the hive was queenless, but I did not know the reason When I emailed the person I had purchased my bees from and described the situation he was fairly certain that the bees had swarmed and that the new queen that was left behind in the hive had not survived. When a hive becomes too crowded the bees will swarm. When this happens the current queen and about 60% of the worker bees leave the hive for a new location. I did not think this had happened because (1) we had just added a new brood box so there was a lot of new space and (2) there were still lots of bees in the hive. However, on a recent inspection, I had seen a bee in the 'attic' of the hive above the queen excluder that looked significantly longer than the other bees. Being new to this, it did not register at the time, but with Alan and I both researching trying to figure out what was going on we learned that, when getting ready to swarm, the bees will starve the queen so that she will loose weight and be able to fly again. That bee I saw was probably the svelte queen bee that could now fit between the slots of the queen excluder.

Here is an example of drone cells (left) and worker bee
cells (right). A queenless hive with a laying worker
only produces drones, there will be no worker bee cells.
So, our best guess, is that our bees swarmed and the new queen did not survive either her hatching or more likely, her maiden flight which is where she mates with drones before returning to the hive to lay thousands of eggs for the rest of her life. Since I did not catch this right away, our hive was in dire straights. We were up against the clock because if a hive is queenless for too long a worker bee will become a laying worker. This means it will start laying eggs, but it will only produce drones. With no more worker bees being hatched the hive will not be able to sustain itself. However, if you try to replace the queen after a laying worker has been established the laying worker will most likely kill the new queen.

My best chance for success was to either introduce a new frame of brood comb into the hive. This frame would have freshly laid eggs from another hive that the bees in my hive would select eggs of the right age to create a queen from. I could also purchase a new queen, place her on a new frame of comb from another hive and place it in our brood box. This second option would actually improve my chances because the hive would hopefully accept the new queen and we would have reproduction starting immediately, or if they did not accept the queen we would still have the fresh eggs from another hive for them to create a new queen which would delay reproduction by a few weeks.

Queen Buttercup and her attendants
arrived by priority mail.
I order a new queen bee and as the next evening was our weekly meeting of our self-reliance group I explained our dilemma in hopes of obtaining a frame of brood as we have several beekeepers in the group. Unfortunately  no one offered a frame to help save the hive. Alan offered some cash to help sweeten the deal (no pun intended) but we still had no offers so all we could do was wait for Queen Buttercup to arrive by priority mail, install her into the hive and are hoping for the best.

The worker bees are checking out Queen Buttercup
during our test to ensure the hive was queenless.
Prior to establishing Queen Buttercup into her new kingdom, we had a test that would indicate if there actually was still a queen inside of Clive (the hive). Now that we had a queen in our possession, we could place her cage on top of the frames in the brood box and see how the bees reacted. In any case, they should show a lot of interest in the cage and many should rush over to it immediately. The test would be based on the attitude the bees had towards the cage. If they climbed all over it but were friendly and curious then the hive was truly queenless and they were looking for a new queen. If, however, the bees were acting defensively and attacking the queens cage then we were wrong and there was actually a queen somewhere within the hive. We passed the test in that the worker bees were friendly towards Queen Buttercup.

The queen cage is placed between two frames in the
lower brood box and the bees start working away at
the candy plug to free their new queen.
When installing a new queen, they are placed in a small cage with a candy (marshmallow like) plug. It takes several days for the bees to eat through this and free the queen. This delay allows the bees to become acclimated to the new queen's pheromones and accept her into the hive. Her Royal Highness had been shipped in the queen cage along with six attendants. Her ladies in waiting are worker bees who care for her. Unfortunately, when I removed the frames in the hive to adjust the space for her little cage I saw larvae in some of the comb cells which means we now had a laying worker bee. I also saw a high number of drones in the hive, higher than would be expected for a normal hive, which also indicates we have a worker bee creating drones.

Nonetheless, I am still holding out a glimmer of hope. I did check the hive one more time before we left town for a week. I wanted to confirm that Queen Buttercup made it out of her cage. At first I thought she was still in there because the cage was full of bees when I took it out from between the two frames we had wedged it between, but then I saw the candy plug was gone and there were just a lot of bees in general going in and out of the little box. We had paid an additional nominal fee to have Queen Buttercup marked so that we could spot her more easily in the hive. When she arrived, I was a bit surprised to discover that she had been dabbed with yellow paint. Really? A yellow dot is supposed to make her stand out from the other bees? I then found out there are five colors used to mark bees and that one of the five colors is used depending on the year and yellow is the color for 2017.

We still have not seen the queen, they can be very elusive moving from frame to frame as you pull the frames from the hive to inspect them. I also do not like to handle the frames too much because there is always the chance of squishing the queen between two frames as you slide them back in place. It would be a shame if the queen just happened to be moving between the edges of two frames as you slid them together to insert another frame back into the hive. The chances are slim, and I always move the frames back into place slowly so the bees can move out of the way but it still can happen.

Sorry, I'll get back to the story. Back to that last inspection before we went out of town. The top brood box was still all capped honey. Most of the frames are quite full and it is very heavy to lift off to get to the original brood box. In the original brood box, I wanted to inspect the frames in the center as that is where the queen will usually start laying. First I pulled out an edge frame as this give me room to maneuver the other frames more safely without harming the bees. With the edge frame out of the hive, I can slide the next frame over and and then pull it out. I have learned that the side of the frame facing the center of the box tends to have more bees and more activity than the side facing the outside edge. Given the fact that there are hundreds of bees on the frames as you pull them out, it can be a bit challenging to move the frame around to be able to get a clear view of what's going on.

Here you can see cells of capped worker bees and some
uncapped larvae. The caps on worker bee cells have a
slight dome while drone cells will have a higher dome.
As I reached the frames at the center of the box my hopes began to rise. I was seeing a mix of cell types within the comb. Capped honey has a cap on the cell that is slightly concave and capped drone cells have a pronounced dome shaped cap on their cells. What I was looking for were capped worker bee cells, these would be evidence that Queen Buttercup was alive and producing worker bees. And yes, I am fairly certain I saw worker bee cells. They can sometimes be confused with capped honey because, while not concave, they appear to be flat topped or very slightly domed. But as the worker bees are smaller than drones, the cells containing workers do not have the high domed caps like the cells containing drones.

Alan took this photo over my shoulder during my last inspection, which
about a week after returned from our trip. I was ecstatic to see lots of
capped worker bee cells in the lower brood box frames. I also pulled some
frames for inspection in the upper brood box and found more worker cells.
So, in summation, the past few weeks have been a very high learning curve. It has been stressful - we have learned how attached we have become to our bees. It has been frustrating - every time we thought we had things figured out we would go up to the hive to confirm some research and realize things had changed or were not what we originally thought. And, it has been a needed reminder - I once said I wanted to be a bee-haver because I wanted our bees to be more self-reliant, like us. And yet, as I reflect back on this whole saga, the biggest frustration was we dropped our self-reliance and looked to others for help and it was not there. During our road trip last week, Alan and I had long hours to discuss many things and one of those was plans on how to avoid this in the future. I still want to be a bee-haver, I don't want the bees to become a consuming hobby, but in order to be a more self-reliant endeavor we need to have two hives.

Had we had another hive we would have had frames of brood we we were looking for to transfer into the failing hive, and even if the hive still failed we would have a second one that we could split. Ever since we started down the path of self-reliance, a favorite saying of Alan's has been 'two is one and one is none. '. This basically means you have to have a back-up for everything that you need. If you only have one option and it fails, you are in trouble. We have always designed our various system based on this principle, and while the bees are not a necessity, they are important to us. And so, we have made a decision and I would like to announce that next spring Clive (the hive) will be getting a baby brother!

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